Monday, April 6, 2009

Mental toughness in horses: Mind over matter?

The relativity of soundness by Anne Gribbons (from the March 6 2009 issue of Chronicle of the Horse) should be required reading for horsemen and women. Gribbons read the tribute to Graf George written by his veterinarian, Paul McClellan, and apparently she was inspired by the article about this gifted horse. I'm sure most of you are familiar with Graf George, a big gray Hanoverian by Graphit out of a thoroughbred mare. His brilliance in the dressage ring took him, and his rider Gunter Seidel, to the Olympics twice for two bronze medals. If you have never seen Graf George take a look at his 1998 WEG performance. I love his floppy ears.

Horses with "issues"
Dr. McClellan observed that Graf George was a horse with many bumps and dings, yet his great heart overcame physical limitations. Gribbons reflects on this point and offers her views on the role of heart and character in the sport horse. Gribbons shares the story of her thoroughbred Tappan Zee. Tappan was an tough old ex-racehorse with two bowed tendons that she trained to Grand Prix. When he died from a broken pelvis, Gribbons writes that "I was too young and inexperienced then to know what a rare, brave and generous animal I was losing." As thoroughbred owner I find it especially nice that someone who has such a high profile in dressage chose to recognize a thoroughbred. In my book, thoroughbreds set the standard for mental toughness.

The flesh may be weak, but what does the spirit say?
Gribbons questions the predictive value of the standard veterinary diagnostic tools. Pre-purchase exams and radiographs don't tell the whole story, she says, and a clean vetting is no guarantee your horse will be sound. Over the years she has run across her share of horses who have no physical problems but also no motivation. "No radiographs will protect you against that kind of horse, because they are allergic to effort and have work avoidance down to an art form," she writes. Pre-purchase exams are often misused. A cautionary note from the vet can send a skittish buyer running, and the navicular bone pictures have killed many sales in her experience. With great frustration she has watched the horses with "bad x-rays" go on to compete successfully year after year.

Final thoughts
Well, the Gribbons article has inspired me, not only to reflect on the greatness of Graf George, but to learn more about the use of vettings and x-rays in predicting a horse's future in sports. In an upcoming entry I hope to write about it. But for now, I hope you'll go back to the first paragraph and watch the video of the magnificent Graf George.


  1. Thanks for putting this link in-I am right there with you with loving the floppy ears. When I saw Northern Spy (with Heidi Carty-White) at the Rolex in 2006 I fell in love with him and his super floppy ears during their dressage test! You have to love a horse that relaxed while he works. If you see them on the course [not sure where things are at since them having to pull from the Olympic games] when at this year's Rolex give them a cheer for me!

  2. I agree that horses with physical limitations are better to ride than those with motivational limitations. The one with the crooked legs might not trot as prettily, but can you really beat the way he tries to do his best?

  3. I did watch your recommended video and marveled. Then I followed a few related links and saw something I hadn't considered, A Freisian Dressage video that was excellent. Persoanlly I had not considered this breed as a possible Dressage candidate. I'd be interested in your thoughts on this.

    the link is below:

  4. Most horses have some limitations - we need to learn to listen to them and pay attention to what the horse is saying. And different horses have different tolerances for discomfort - but I prefer a horse that will tell me when something hurts to one that will stoically go on, perhaps risking further injury.

  5. When I was more familiar with the baroque type Friesian I didn't care for them, they struck me as not built for dressage and their canter seemed strung out-ish. Not that they aren't gorgeous to look at.

    But the modern sport horse Friesians, and the Frisian-arab crosses can be really spectacular. I noticed the horse in your video has a nice round canter. He paddled (?) a bit in the piaffe which just goes to show that the gaits don't have to be 100% perfect to put on a great show. Loved the music too.

  6. I have a sweet gray Hano cross named Graf Granite. he even has large floppy ears. Lets home he takes after his name sake :)

  7. Kaswyn is certainly of the category of "the heart is willing but the flesh is weak". He is not physically set up to do dressage but he does it. I love the other two horses I am riding, both of which are much more physically able to do dressage, and have much better movement than he does. But neither one of them has the heart that Kaswyn does.

    Sometimes I think that when I lose him I will never be able to replace him, but then the thought makes me sad so I don't think about it anymore.


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